Interview with Vanessa Rousso
by Steve Marzolf As a lawyer, poker pro and self-described “huge dork,” Vanessa Rousso has made a name for herself in tournament poker, earning more than $3.7 million since 2006. Lately, she’s been repping for PokerStars and running poker “boot camps” to raise up the next crop of winning players. We called Vanessa up to talk about her tactics for surviving – and thriving – in the high-pressure world of large-buy-in tournaments. So you’re primarily a tournament player? I would say I’m only a tournament player. I can play a cash game or two. But to be honest with you, I play so many tournaments as it is, that if I play cash games too, it’s just too much poker. I like to have balance in my life, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to play tournaments, cash games and do all the other things I like to do. Mike Matusow was complaining to us that high-buy-in tourneys have gotten too risky to profit on – what do you think of that statement? My results are skewed toward high buy-ins. I find that in the smaller buy-ins, I don’t do as well. The higher the buy-in, the more pressure and the better I play. I guess my own particular strategies are more suited to high-buy-in events against better players. So, for me, I’d rather play fewer events that are higher buy-in. What do you think it is about your style that matches up so well with those events? I think it’s probably rooted in logical ability. Basically, the higher the buy-in, the deeper the chip stacks, right? So, there’s more opportunity for telling stories with your bets and raises, and there’s more opportunity for tricking and trapping your opponents. In smaller buy-ins, you have to play more ABC optimally and just exploit the mistakes your opponents are making. At the higher levels, you’re not really waiting for your opponents to make errors – you’re more trying to trick and trap them. So it’s a little bit more of a mind game. I guess I don’t have the patience to play the ABC right way that I should in the smaller buy-ins, and then in the bigger buy-ins, tricking other thinking opponents is enough of a challenge that I give it my A-plus effort every time. But you cut your teeth playing sit-n-go’s, right? Well, I started off playing on the internet for free when I was in college, and then when I turned 21, I started playing live – that was when I was in law school in Miami. The first casino I played at was the Seminole Hard Rock down there, which had sit-n-go’s. I’d play on the weekends, and that’s how I built up my first bankroll. Why did sit-n-go’s work for you? They really had a definable, optimal strategy. Once you figure them out, there are only so many dynamics that can come up in one 10-person, set-blind-structure, $150-buy-in game. There’s just not that many ways it can go down. It took me a couple weeks to figure it out, but once I did, it was a formula that I could apply to that situation. And it was pretty consistent at making money. For beginners who want to follow in your footsteps, what sit-n-go advice do you have for them? I’m really big into reading the books and preparing for poker the same way you would for any money-making opportunity. People don’t just jump into investment banking without any schooling about it. I read like 30 books in a couple months before I started. Also, you need to be a lot more patient than people think you need to be. People come in to play, and they try to take advantage of the low blind levels to play hands that are a little more speculative. But really, the chips are worth next to nothing when the table is still 9- or 10-handed. For instance, many people may find that they double up or even triple up early on in a match, but then don’t even make the top three. Because that early on, those chips just aren’t worth anything. Therefore risking chips to accumulate those early chips isn’t worth it. It’s profitable to play much, much tighter than you think in the early stages. Once your career got moving, was there a moment when things really came together for you? I think it was when I came in 7th in the $25,000 buy-in WPT main event back in 2006. It was the first time I’d taken a shot on the pro circuit, and it worked out. I won a quarter-million dollars, and that pretty much launched my career. It gave me the confidence to continue playing the circuit. Then later that year I won another 400-some thousand in various events. So 2006 was really the big year for me. Can you describe the processes running in your mind when you’re at a game like that and trying to get a read on your opponents? Getting a read all boils down to two categories – are they comfortable or uncomfortable? Because, if they have a good hand and they’re an experienced player, that’s a situation where they’re going to be super-comfortable. Good players have had aces a million times, so their hands aren’t trembling at aces anymore – it’s just something that makes them feel confident. Whereas even a good player can get nervous when they’re in on a big bluff, because that’s a situation that’s less in their control. On the flip side, inexperienced players will be a lot more uncomfortable with good hands because they’re not used to getting aces, kings, queens. The adrenaline’s been released. And since beginners tend to think poker is a lot more about bluffing, they can actually look pretty comfortable holding nothing. Good players, though, know how easy it is to get caught bluffing. So, if you can put your opponent into the comfortable/uncomfortable category, and then determine whether or not they’re an experienced player, it can really help you decide whether they have a hand. Is this the kind of stuff you get into during your poker boot camps? Yeah. I break down tournament strategy into a logical formula and give people guidelines to follow. Rather than vague principles, I give them specific strategies to follow. Mostly, I try to simplify the extremely complex game of tournament poker. Some of the things they can expect to learn are how to use “M” in hand selection; I cover some advanced reading techniques; I cover some game theory and poker stuff, as well. If anyone’s interested, they can get more info at www.bigslickbootcamp.com.